Recovery after fire
Climate change is expected to increase disturbances such as stand-replacing wildfire in many ecosystems, which have the potential to drive rapid turnover in ecological communities. Ecosystem recovery, and therefore maintenance of critical structures and functions (resilience), is likely to vary across environmental gradients such as moisture availability, but has received little study. We examined conifer regeneration a decade following complete stand-replacing wildfire in dry coniferous forests spanning a 700 m elevation gradient where low elevation sites had relatively high moisture stress due to the combination of high temperature and low precipitation. Conifer regeneration varied strongly across the elevation gradient, with little tree regeneration at warm and dry low elevation sites. Logistic regression models predicted rapid increases in regeneration across the elevation gradient for both seedlings of all conifer species and ponderosa pine seedlings individually. This pattern was especially pronounced for well-established seedlings ( >= 38 cm in height). Graminoids dominated lower elevation sites following wildfire, which may have added to moisture stress for seedlings due to competition for water. These results suggest moisture stress can be a critical factor limiting conifer regeneration following stand-replacing wildfire in dry coniferous forests, with predicted increases in temperature and drought in the coming century likely to increase the importance of moisture stress. Strongly moisture limited forested sites may fail to regenerate for extended periods after stand-replacing disturbance, suggesting these sites are high priorities for management intervention where maintaining forests is a priority.